Sep 18, 2016

The Ra Expeditions

by Thor Heyerdahl

This book was a re-read for me. Seven years ago I was kind of floored when I read about Heyerdahl's trips across the Atlantic in handmade boats, to test his theories about how ancient peoples might have travelled the oceans, in particular going from Egypt to the American continent. For some reason I had this book on my TBR shelf next to The Tigris Expedition and decided to read one before the other (chronologically). I was only a few chapters in before incidents and descriptions began to feel familiar, and I realized I'd read it before. It was still pretty darn interesting, and is sticking around in my collection (this time properly shelved).

In Kon-Tiki Heyerdahl crossed the ocean on a balsa wood raft, in this case he built papyrus reed boats. He travelled the world to find men who still built reed boats on various lakes, and with their expertise handling the materials, followed the design of reed boats depicted in Egyptian tombs- he was convinced by their shape they must have been seaworthy. However he didn't know the purpose of certain parts of the design, so although they copied the images faithfully, once at sea they made some mistakes which caused the boat to start falling apart. They made it most of the way across- just a few hundred miles short of their goal before being rescued by a ship. The bulk of the book details the research, how the boat was constructed and the first trip- how the men settled their differences on board (being from seven different nations), how they learned to steer the reed boat, sightings of whales, porpoises, sharks, jellyfish and other oceanic life, difficulties with the weather and all things you'd expect to read about an ocean voyage. Mostly it's about how the structure of the boat held up (or didn't) to the rigors of wave and wind, and how their provisions held out- they took only foods that ancient Egyptians might have had, and packed them the same way- clay jars and baskets. It all worked out surprisingly well.

Thor Heyerdahl launched a second trip not long after, to prove they could make it all the way with the boat built and loaded properly. This time they didn't have nearly as many difficulties, and the second trip is told in a mere one chapter. It wasn't as exciting because not so much went wrong- the boat still took on water and they broke steering oars, but it didn't fall apart like the first one.

While I liked reading this again, I did notice it got really repetitive telling about all the historical similarities between ancient cultures Heyerdahl was trying to prove. There's an entire chapter or two in the middle of the book where he just reiterates all the arguments he brought up at the beginning of the book, fleshed out from some reading the crew did while on board to while away calm moments. Then he rehashes it all again at the end. I didn't really want to read a bunch of history, I wanted to read about the adventure- I could have done with all that just told once and summarized again...

Rating: 3/5        341 pages, 1971

My earlier review is here.

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